The only known habitable planet might be on the verge of a devastating collapse. According to a new study, Earth might be falling into a series of tipping points that will greatly impact the planet's habitability.
A global warming of severe levels remains a distinct possibility in the decades and centuries ahead, according to scientists, warning that a "hothouse Earth" threatens the very "habitability of the planet for human beings."
In this so-called hothouse Earth, sea levels will rise between 33 to 200 feet — 10 to 60 meters — higher than current levels. It's hard to imagine such conditions will ever occur, but scientists are now warning that they're easy to fall into. Their perspective article was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hothouse Earth Tipping Point
The researchers claim that there's a threshold temperature that when crossed will cause the natural feedback systems that currently keep Earth cool to unravel. When this point is reached, the planet will see a cascade of climate events that will put it into a hothouse state. The scientists are uncertain on what this threshold is, but they said it could be as slight as 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.
"This paper gives very strong scientific support ... that we should avoid coming too close or even reaching 2 degrees Celsius warming," said Johan Rockström, a professor of water systems and global sustainability at the Stockholm University in Sweden, and coauthor of the study.
Currently, Earth is in a period called the Holocene epoch, in which the planet has natural systems that help keep it cool even during warmer interglacial periods. However, many scientists and global warming experts say that because humans have inflicted so much damage on the climate and environment, temperatures are almost as hot as the maximum historical temperature during an interglacial cycle, according to Rockström.
If carbon emissions persist, Earth might leave the glacial-interglacial cycle and enter a new age of the hothouse Earth.
Expect rivers flooding, storms wreaking havoc on coastal communities, and coral reefs disappearing entirely. All these could happen by the end of the century, possibly even earlier. This cascade "may tip the entire Earth system into a new mode of operation," according to coauthor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
How To Prevent Hothouse Earth
According to the researchers, people must immediately change their lifestyle if they want to avoid hothouse conditions.
Fossil fuels must be replaced with low- or zero-emission energy sources, and more trees should be planted to absorb carbon dioxide.
"Climate and other global changes show us that we humans are impacting the Earth system at the global level," according to coauthor Katherine Richardson. "This means that we as a global community can also manage our relationship with the system to influence future planetary conditions."